What Gives? Micromanagement is the Least Admired and Most Applied Style of Management
If you do a simple Google search for “micromanagement” the result garners almost 1.7 million hits. Of that number, more than 99 percent of the links listed spotlight the faults and failures of micromanaging in a business environment. And even those few commentaries that defend micromanaging start with the premise that it is a bad management style to adopt, but suggests there are rare times when it is acceptable; like for brain surgery and sending a man to the moon.
While discussions of micromanagement may highlight its deficiencies as a flawed management practice, they fail to explain why – if it is so bad – so many use it as a management tactic. Beyond warning “just don’t do it,” few observations offer suggestions as to how a manager can achieve the objectives of micromanagement – knowing what is happening and seeing that a job done well and on time – without actually employing this enduring technique.
Micromanagement in Action
Who does not have a horror story to tell about working for a micromanaging boss? With scant argument to the contrary, there is agreement that micromanaging is inefficient, that it suppresses creativity, suffocates alternative options, discourages the development of talent, makes for frustrated and dissatisfied employees and is often counterproductive to what the manager seeks to achieve.
And yet, despite this litany of shortcomings, why does micromanagement continue to flourish in the world of management? The problem is that at its core micromanaging is designed to prevent bad things from happening, not kindle the precious innovation and creativity that causes good things to happen. Micromanagement flourishes because most managers fear the fallout from the bad more than they strive for the benefits of the good.
Even the most abusive practitioners will deny they are addicted to micromanagement. Instead, they will always offer e some watery-thin rationalization to deflect being tagged as a “micromanager.” Excuses like, “I am naturally detail-oriented,” “I like being involved,” or, I just want to support those doing the job” are offered up to justify their intrusive style. In a way these micromanagers are like those who deny being an alcoholic and say the only reason they joined AA was to meet people to drink with. The positive side of micromanagement is the desire to see that the job is done right; while the dark side is that the application of such stifling control often causes the job not to get done at all.
The Truth About Micromanagers
Micromanagement is a popular management tool because it appeals to both the self-doubting and self-centered manager. The weak manager is filled with insecurities and paranoia. Their worst fear is that if the job is not done right, they will be blamed. So, they set everything up as a paint-by-numbers job more simple to assemble than an Ikea bookcase. Concerned with their lack of ability, weak-willed managers also want to make sure they get the credit if the job goes well. This feeling and attitude causes the insecure manager to constantly hover over and interfere with those tasked with the actual work. On the other hand, the self-centered (should I say egotistical?) manager has this belief that they are the only ones with the knowledge and ability to actually do the job right. They don’t trust others to do the job so they believe they must constantly be knee-deep in the efforts of others or the job won’t get done; at least not the way they would do it.
It is possible to sympathize with these managers because the truth is that if the job is not completed properly and the results are unsatisfactory, they will be deemed responsible, placing their future and even their job on the line. You can understand the feeling that if they are going to be blamed for something, they want to be in total control. But it is not possible to condone the use of micromanagement as a way to diminish this risk. In fact, micromanaging the process increases the risk of failure.
A Better Way to Micromanage is to be Invisible
With apologies to Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations, 1776) a much more effective way to maintain control in a business management situation is to use an invisible hand. Adam Smith’s metaphorical view of free market capitalism concluded there is an “invisible hand” that serves to motivate and control the actions of those participating, even if they did not see, feel or understand the control. Likewise, effective managers can adopt the idea of an invisible hand style of management to motivate, monitor and control the actions of others, even if they don’t see or feel it as interference.
The way to accomplish this is to sit down with all concerned parties at the very start of a process and make sure that everyone understands the objective, the benefits received by achieving it and the parameters that are to be followed in the effort to achieve success.
Let’s say a company desires to enter a new market. The first step is for everyone involved in the effort to understand the reason for entering the market, the opportunities it presents, and define the entry’s ultimate objective. This is in essence the vision of what is to be achieved.
Believe it or not, the next – and maybe most important step taken to reduce the temptation to micromanage the process – is to determine and gain agreement on what will not be done in the effort to enter the market. Right up front it’s important to establish and have everyone agree to the parameters that will govern participation in the market. Call these the rules of engagement. Together, the group determines crucial elements like what products won’t be offered, what the limits of discounting or financing will be and what minimum margins will be acceptable. They will also gain agreement that, no matter how tempting it may be to take these actions, they are out of bounds. You see, once it has been established what won’t be done to meet the objective, everything else is fair game. The manager can stand back with a hands-off attitude, offering freedom of action for those charged with the process to be creative and aggressive in finding and implementing what can be successful in the market.
The process for stamping out micromanagement – for any size project – is simple and straight forward:
- Explain and confirm acceptance of the ultimate objective.
- Secure agreement and understanding of what will not be done to achieve the objective.
- Allow those charged with achieving the objective the freedom to explore, develop and propose a plan to achieve the objective.
- Meet with the group to review, revise (if needed) and approve the plan.
- Establish a regular process of reporting and review.
- Maintain an open channel of communication, so that any change in the environment can be passed on to the group and any desire by the group to deviate from the approved plan – including violating any rule of engagement – can be reviewed and discussed.
- Get out of the way and let the people do their job.
The benefit derived from this type of approach to managing is that it allows the manager to control the process, but to do so with an invisible hand. At the same time, those charged with completing the task at hand are motivated, because they are empowered to develop, implement and complete the effort, so long as they stay within agreed upon boundaries. Both the manager and the workers know what to expect and have their needs met.
The invisible hand of management at 30,000 feet.
Probably the best real-life example of how this invisible hand management philosophy looks and works is the air traffic control system. In this system the airline decides it wants to fly from Miami to Chicago. It puts together a “flight plan” being sure to avoid “no fly” zones and then files the plan with the manager of the system Air Traffic Control (ATC). The ATC then reviews and approves the plan, with maybe minor changes due to anticipated traffic or weather.
The pilots have full control over flying the aircraft and getting it from Miami to Chicago. At certain way-points the pilots check in with ATC, offering updates on progress. If there is a change in weather or unexpected traffic in the path of the flight, ATC can warn the pilots to adjust their plan. If the pilots encounter a situation that disrupts the flight plan, they contact ATC and request approval to deviate from the established plan.
In this example the airline decides where it wants to go, a plan is developed to get there, the plan is submitted for approval; once the plan is approved the pilots do all the flying and with an invisible hand the ATC oversees and controls the entire process, without interfering,
And the moral of the story …
For a management style that is so roundly vilified, it is amazing how prevalent the practice is in business. Virtually everyone agrees that micromanaging is a tactic with mostly downside results and few upside benefits. The problem is that at its core micromanaging is designed to prevent bad things from happening, not stir the innovation and creativity that causes good things to happen. Micromanagement flourishes because most managers fear the bad more than they strive for the good.
The best way to reduce the temptation to micromanage is to develop an invisible hand style of supervision that allows the manager to eliminate potential actions that can lead to bad things happening. Once this is accomplished there will be less fear about the bad happening and more reason to allow those charged with the task the freedom to find the good.